Obituary: Bernard Aspinwall, author, historian and lecturer

Bernard Aspinwall
Bernard Aspinwall
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Born: 6 April, 1938, in Preston, Lancashire. Died: 16 October, 2013, in West Kilbride, Ayrshire, aged 75.

Bernard Aspinwall was the author of many historical books, a lecturer at Glasgow, Strathclyde and a number of American universities and an enthusiastic pioneer of the Scottish Catholic Renewal Movement.

Born in Preston, Lancashire, he was educated at the Jesuit-run Preston Catholic College, where he was a prodigious, hard-working student, and at Manchester University, where his MA by dissertation was cited in the History of Parliament.

Aspinwall, who played football for the Manchester University history team and was greatly involved in the Catholic Society, graduated with a BA in 1960. He obtained the MA in 1962 and was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to Indiana University, where he also worked at the University of Eastern Kentucky.

He started his career as a history lecturer at Glasgow University in 1965, where he devoted his historical studies to Glasgow, Scotland and America.

Right from the start of his lectureship in Glasgow he researched thoroughly the history of the city, resulting in his first book Portable Utopia, published in 1983.

Aspinwall demonstrated the close relationship in that book between America and Glasgow, which he described as being in the 19th and 20th centuries “the workshop of the world”. It was his view that Glasgow was probably the greatest of all the 19th-entury cities and the Americans wanted to copy it.

He wrote many historical works during his years in Glasgow right up until his death, including one in Spanish. He had published 130 essays and articles in edited books and wrote for journals in England, Ireland, Scotland, Italy, France, Belgium, Spain and USA.

Aspinwall wrote 220 reviews and travelled frequently to lecture at American universities. On one of these visits to the USA, he lectured with the Northern Ireland poet and Nobel laureate, the late Seamus Heaney. He also lectured at many evening classes in Continuing Education Department of Glasgow University in the past ten years.

His funeral Mass, concelebrated by Fathers Joe Boland and Willy Slavin, took place at St Bride’s RC Church in West Kilbride, and his final commitment took place later at Holmsford Bridge Crematorium, by Dreghorn.

His friend, Glasgow solicitor James Armstrong, said all Aspinwall’s books on Catholicism in Scotland are of an international flavour. “His aim was to suggest that Scotland is and always has been an international community of faith. He pointed out that the Oxford and Cambridge Movements of the 19th century had considerable influence in Scotland.

“Cardinal Newman amongst others was involved in the religious life in Scotland which he visited on a number of occasions and many religious Orders came to Scotland in the 19th century.

“Indeed the arrival of the Jesuits and Marists in Scotland gradually opened up opportunities for able and ambitious laity to enter professional life. Bernard came to Scotland and dedicated his life to revealing how important a part the Catholic Church played in Scottish life.”

Aspinwall, who was widely admired for his encyclopaedic knowledge of his subject, bright intellect and good humour, gave talks over many years at conferences and with organisations such as the Catholic Historical Association, the Newman Association, the Renewal Movement, Open House and the Robert McLaughlan Book Club.

Father Slavin said that from boyhood Bernard had been “a train-spotting buff” – “As one of many recipients of Bernard’s voluminous e-mails I can vouch for his meticulous attention to anything that was not supported by chapter and verse. He took everyone and everything seriously.

“This is not to deny that face to face he was a genial host and more interested in promoting a discussion that proving a point. It is hard to think of a subject to which he would not have some information to contribute.”

At Strathclyde University from 1995 to 2002, he was Senior Research Fellow in History and Liaison Officer to North American Colleges, where his readiness to help with recruiting American students was much appreciated. Friends on both sides of the Atlantic will be deeply saddened by the news of his death.

Former students said Aspinwall was extremely helpful and that they valued greatly his company and friendship.

One of them, Dublin-based Scottish author and commentator on religion, John Cooney, paid tribute to Aspinwall’s contribution to Catholicism and the Scottish Catholic Renewal Movement, saying: “Bernard was lecturer of John F Kennedy American studies at Glasgow University when I came under his tutorship in the academic year of 1966-67.

“He was more like an older brother than an authority figure, linking us to the worlds of Daniel O’Connell, Charles De Montalambert, the great French liberal and Catholic of the 19th century, who corresponded with Orestes A Brownson, the monumental American Catholic publicist, and seems to have known Fr Isaac Hecker, who founded the Paulists.

“He introduced us to Robert Monteith of Carstairs, whose father endowed the experimental community abode of David Livingstone in my native Blantyre and Lanark.

“Bernard not only taught American history with deep learning, but he brought into the classroom living contemporary insights through his involvement in the civil rights movement and simultaneously through his contributions to Glasgow University Catholic Society, the Newman Association and the Renewal Movement led by James and Irene Armstrong.”

Aspinwall, who died at home from cancer, is survived by his wife, Jo, his children Judith, Mark and Timothy from his first marriage to Kathleen and by his step-daughter Julie and three grandchildren Emma, Adam and Luke.